Do 'strong black men' make the best fathers?

OPINION - As I watch my father grow in his manhood, I've learned that a good cry and sharing can be key to literally keeping us alive...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

My father is shorter than me now, but as I was growing up I thought of him as the tallest, toughest, smartest, and funniest person on the planet. As I grew, we certainly had our shares of conflicts: wondering why he was never at my games, his absolute refusal to discuss his health, and his insistence on “his way or the highway.”

As a child, I never saw my father shed tears whether they of sorrow or joy. He showed his family love, but worked diligently to keep his emotions tucked away from sight. While most of our discussions of black fathers are centered on influencing children when young, I’ve learned so much more from my father as an adult about the role of emotions, health, and manhood.

As a child, my father and mother made extreme sacrifices to make sure my sister and I had access to better quality schools, extracurricular activities, and cultural exposure. What this meant was that my father lived with us often I felt his absence due to working overtime to pay for catholic schools and other amenities. As a child, when my sister and I were frustrated about his lack of time with us, he dropped out of a local tech school he was attending on weekends to spend more time with us. This type of sacrifice was significant but only years later would I see his willingness to sacrifice for his own family that was far greater.

During the winter of 2010 my father called my sister and I on the phone to hold a family meeting. We’re not like the Cosbys so family meetings are usually code for “something’s wrong.” When we all gathered he let us know that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. As I sat at the other end of the phone I was worried but I was also relieved to hear that my father’s cancer had been detected early. Because prostate cancer disproportionately affects black men I would later learn that this type of cancer wasn’t foreign in my family but conversations about it were. Slowly I learned other men in my family had suffered from prostate cancer but never been bold enough to share and provide advice on prevention.

When I asked my father about his diagnosis he let me know he had to make a decision. He told me, “I have to chose between my health and being ‘a manly man’.” In one sentence my father unmasked how he had to evolve his own notions of masculinity to ensure his health. Far too many men, particularly black men, who endorse traditional male roles — particularly around being restrictive with one’s emotions — are less likely to go for medical examinations. My father has never been hypermasculine, but he’s always banked on some traditional ideas about what a man does and doesn’t do. I never recalled showing emotions or going to the doctor on the list of what men do.

As a custodial father, a police officer, and ally to many in my neighborhood growing up my father was a prototypical “strong black man.” However, being a strong black man carries a heavy burden that carries emotional and physical tolls. We teach our sons and brothers that showing emotions is unmanly and can lead you to exclusion.

We teach or sons and brothers that toughness is the hallmark of masculinity while asking for help is often thought of as feminine. If you don’t believe me, look at the commentary on Chris Bosh who cried after losing the Finals, you would think his “man card” was going to be revoked. The costs of carrying so much and withholding it can be both emotional and physical.

A few months ago, I spent some time at home helping my father transition back to health after medical procedures and we shared some tears, some laughs and some growth. I know that we often talk about what you learn as a child from your parents you model, but I’m glad to say as an adult I’m learning even more.

Being a father is work, being a black father is damn hard work, but I’m glad my father has shown me it can be done with honesty, integrity, and emotions. As I watch my father grow in his manhood, I’ve learned that a good cry and sharing can be key to literally keeping us alive.